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4 minute read
Michael Kramer

WE’RE GONNA WIN BOTH,” BOB DOLE SAID OF IOWA AND NEW HAMPshire last week, which is really all he could have said, since he’s been saying the same thing for almost a year. But how big will those scores be? “You’re not gonna trap me in that deal,” Dole told me last summer–after predicting that the “fat lady would sing” if he lost New Hampshire. “I don’t do expectations.” No matter. Everyone else “does” expectations, and there’s no escaping them.

In the days before civilians actually start voting, the people who make their living in politics somehow agree on a standard, a point spread, an expectation. Thereafter, if a particular candidate is perceived as performing less well than expected, his victories are labeled losses–or vice versa. Since the actual election of a President depends on absolute numbers, it may all seem ridiculous, but it isn’t. In fact, cause and effect have been well established. If, during the long course of caucuses and primaries, the point spread isn’t beaten, momentum is lost and a candidacy can implode as cash and support evaporate.

No one knows when the expectations game first became part of the process, but Larry O’Brien, who ran John Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, loved recalling how “we suckered everyone in West Virginia.” J.F.K.’s own polls had him beating Hubert Humphrey with 60% of the vote in that state, which at the time held a crucial primary. “But we successfully touted our strength at 40%,” O’Brien said. “When we hit 60% it was considered remarkable.”

Since then, any pol worth his consulting fee has tried to lowball his own candidate’s prospects while inflating his opponent’s. The high chutzpah mark was reached in 1972 when George McGovern’s 37% showing in New Hampshire was taken as a victory because a key aide to Ed Muskie had stupidly said she’d cut her throat if Muskie didn’t get half the vote–a bar he missed by three points.

Where’s the game today? Should Bob Dole’s 37% share of the 1988 Iowa vote (against a stronger field of rivals) be the standard this time around? No, argues a senior Dole aide: “Our number is 30%.” That spin might have been laughable two months ago. It isn’t today. In interviews with six leading campaign operatives, a consensus emerges: “Forbes has done Dole a favor by lowering the bar,” says Eddie Mahe. “Now that he’s falling, a win for Dole by any margin is a win.”

Dole is enjoying lowered expectations for another reason. As voters warm to Forbes because he’s an outsider, insiders hate him all the more. “If Steve were one of us in the larger sense and someone we could plausibly see as President, then we’d surely declare him the winner if Dole is kept below that 37% he got in Iowa in ’88,” says Roger Stone. “That’s right,” says Ed Rollins. “It’d all be different if Forbes were a real person.”

So, as the expectations war escalates, Forbes is already suffering, and mostly because he is challenging the accepted order, the political establishment that crosses party lines. You can see what’s coming, of course. With Forbes soaring in the latest polls, it won’t be long before it is said that he must win Iowa and New Hampshire outright to be deemed the real victor. If the bar is raised like that, probably only one thing is certain. Forbes will spend still more zillions attacking the pols and pundits for trying to rob the electorate of its say.

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